Navigating through the blocks in literary fiction

Sunday, July 15, 2018
Lyndel Caffrey interviewed by Elisa McTaggart

Portrait of Lyndel Caffrey
Lyndel Caffrey

It can be tricky navigating roadblocks in our writing, perhaps even more so with literary fiction. Often, as literary fiction writers, we head completely off the map, or experiment with turning traditional story frameworks and structures on their heads. We chatted to Lyndel Caffrey about problem solving specific to literary fiction.


How does the approach to problem solving differ in literary fiction compared to, say, genre fiction?

It’s been said that while genre writers pen the same story over and over again, ‘literary’ writers have to start from scratch at the beginning of every project. While most genre fiction has clear structural rules for the author to learn and replicate – a romance must have obstacles to true love for instance, and murder mysteries must have multiple suspects, false leads and tightly plotted clues – literary fiction writers have the freedom to subvert traditional forms or come up with something entirely new.
This freedom to take your writing in original and unexpected directions is not without its perils. Plotting genre fiction is complex and demanding, but when a genre writer gets stuck mid-draft, they at least have well tested and consistent templates that will help them identify and resolve problem areas. Literary fiction on the other hand is a strange beast that can’t be caged in. In fact, it’s many, many strange beasts – a different animal every time, it’s been said. That of course is what appeals to literary fiction readers and writers – the freedom to explore character, theme, language and the nature of story itself in ways that are rarely possible inside the disciplined and action-oriented world of genre fiction. But when the writer gets lost in this maze of their own invention, it can get very hard to find their way out, and recourse to standard story telling tropes may compromise everything the author is trying to achieve.
The good news is that writers of all forms and genres have something to learn from each other, and literary fiction writers are welcome to make use of any or all of the strategies that genre and mainstream writers use to keep their readers hooked. Finely honed sentences, character, plot, readability, pace – the tool kit is not all that different, no matter what you’re writing. Having the confidence to pick the right tools and techniques for the job may be all that’s required for the literary writer to succeed in their writing and bring their vision to the audience that’s waiting for it.

What are some common mistakes or pitfalls that writers make when writing literary fiction?

The biggest danger for literary fiction writers – perhaps for all creative writers – is losing sight of the story. Human beings have been storytellers for millennia. I’m convinced that story is physiologically vital for human survival. It’s hardwired into our bodies and our brains. This is why we can get emotional while watching an ad for health insurance, or find it impossible to put down a fast-paced suspense thriller even if we don’t particularly like the writing style. Ancient stories like Gilgamesh or the Odyssey, which sprang up in very different times and cultures to our own remain accessible because the basic tenets of storytelling have never changed. Literary fiction writers disregard this at their peril. Writing sensual and lyrical prose, subverting traditional forms, challenging readers intellectually, messing around with chronology and point of view and experimenting with narrative structure are all part of the pleasure of literary fiction, for writer and reader alike. But writing literary fiction is not a get-out-of-jail-free card, and most writers still want to find and engage their audience. Even powerfully subversive and highly literary writing like George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo, Beckett’s Waiting for Godot and Toni Morrison’s Beloved make use of key elements of classic story telling structures to keep readers hooked and reading to the very last page.

At what stage can writers start troubleshooting their stories?

The completion of a draft is traditionally a time to step back from your story and apply a more critical eye, and this is the only time you can really assess your work as a whole. This can be a great time to enlist other readers too, whose insights may reveal strengths and weaknesses that you aren’t aware of.

For me though, once the seed of an idea is there and I’ve started to write, the trouble shooting begins. My idea of a perfect writing day starts with reading through and revising yesterdays’ work, writing new material, researching obscure objects or ideas I want to incorporate into my narrative, and wrestling with structural problems that could involve pace, story arcs, shifts in voice or the ordering of events. That said, writers have an instinct for the best way to get their story down, and it can be counterproductive to be too critical of your work in the early drafting stages. 

How can we make sure problem solving does not impede on getting our stories on the page?

Problem solving is all about finding solutions, not getting bogged down in the problem. If your car gets a flat tire, you stop on the side of the road, get out your jack and the spare, and get that tire changed as quickly as possible so that you can be back on the road in minutes. If you get stuck in the middle of the process, it could be that you’ve misdiagnosed the problem. Or it could be that your problem is your lack of confidence in your story.  Either way, not every problem has to be solved the minute it crops up. Some problematic passages you can just dump on the side of the road and move on, especially if your story is calling you. You can always come back later and see if there’s anything worth salvaging.

Can you share one tool that you find useful when fine-tuning your own literary works?

As a young writer of novel length manuscripts I always had a gut instinct for the sections of my story that were working well, while reading through problem areas actually made me feel physically ill. The trouble was that while I could sense something was wrong, I lacked the technical expertise to take apart my story, assess it and put it back together. Now, like any good mechanic, I have a checklist of possible problems and solutions that I run through and test my story against before I even open my toolbox. Is my problem point of view? Pace? Is part of the story incomplete? Is a character not pulling their weight? That checklist doesn’t solve the problem right away, but it enables me to narrow down the problem and work out the best way to address it.


About Lyndel Caffrey

Lyndel Caffrey is a writer, mentor and creative writing teacher. She works with writers to help them build a deeper understanding of the story they have to tell, and how to tell it. Lyndel’s novella ‘Glad’ was published in Griffith Review 38, and her literary fiction manuscript ‘Gunclub’ was shortlisted for the inaugural Hachette Australian Richell Prize in 2015.

About Elisa McTaggart

Elisa McTaggart is the Program and Marketing Intern at Writers Victoria. She works freelance as a writer, photographer and project manager, while establishing a wilderness photography and nature writing art practice.